In his last months as prime minister, Gordon Brown sat down and wrote a fan letter to a young British singer-songwriter. ‘With the troubles that the country’s in financially,’ he told her, ‘you are a light at the end of the tunnel.’ Last weekend that light officially went out: Adele has suffered a career-threatening vocal cord injury and will not sing again this year. OK, so it’s impossible to prove cause and effect, but you have to wonder if the curse of Gordon Brown has struck again.
To understand what bad news this is, remember that it’s barely three months since the death of Amy Winehouse. Now Britain may be about to lose a second surreally gifted musician with big hair and pipe-cleaner-length eyelashes. At 23, Adele has already beaten Madonna’s record for the longest stint by a woman at the top of the British album chart. She is the first artist since the Beatles to have had two top five singles and two top five albums at the same time. And her latest recording, 21, is the first to sell three million copies in a calendar year. But to appreciate Adele you have to take your nose out of the Guinness World Records and hear her voice. It’s difficult to describe the sound without booking a place in Pseuds’ Corner, but let’s just say that the comparisons with Etta James and Ella Fitzgerald aren’t far-fetched. (If you don’t believe me, watch her on YouTube singing ‘Someone Like You’, the last track on 21, live in her home.)
Her voice is all the more beautiful because it comes from a hard place. Born in Tottenham to an 18-year-old single mum, Adele Laurie Blue Adkins had a hardscrabble childhood. She idolised the singer Gabrielle so much that one day she wore a sequinned eyepatch to school (not a great idea in her part of London). Her next big love was the Spice Girls. She tried to emulate Baby Spice, Emma Bunton, by going to the Sylvia Young Theatre School. Her mother couldn’t afford the fees so Adele settled for the BRIT School, whose alumni include Amy Winehouse and Leona Lewis.
The curious thing about Adele is that, by the time she left school, she had decided to take a completely different route to fame to that of the Spice Girls, shunning crop tops and karate kicks and relying instead on pure vocal talent. Her PVC-clad heroes gave us Girl Power, which in theory promoted female strength and self-reliance, but in practice looked more like sexual aggressiveness masking deep insecurity. Adele has forged a more grown-up creed — Woman Power, if you like — gently urging girls to love themselves even if they aren’t a size ten and don’t have a boyfriend.
Adele’s modest appearance means that, visually, she has little in common with her pop rivals. Unlike Lady Gaga, she’s more likely to wear M&S than a meat dress. And unlike Rihanna, she makes music videos that you could watch with your mother-in-law without feeling like a deviant. The only nakedness she goes in for is the emotional kind. In that sense Adele could be a poster girl for David Cameron’s campaign against child-sexualisation: she is proof that young women can succeed in the entertainment business without exposing body parts in lads’ magazines.
Adele has other traits that suggest she is a small ‘c’ conservative. ‘The ambition at my state school was to get pregnant and sponge off the government,’ she once said, adding: ‘That ain’t cool.’ She was also appalled to find that the proceeds from her debut album, 19, were taxed at the 50p rate. ‘Trains are always late, most state schools are shit, and I’ve gotta give you, like, four million quid — are you having a laugh?’ she told an interviewer from Q magazine. ‘When I got my tax bill in from 19, I was ready to go and buy a gun and randomly open fire.’ Left-wing music journalists spluttered on their Java Chip Frappuccinos, with one Guardian blogger accusing her of being ‘as greedy as the most moat-friendly, port-stained Tory grandee’.
Perhaps Gordon Brown had seen Adele’s tax bill when he described her as ‘a light at the end of the tunnel’. No doubt she will be paying even more than £4 million after the success of 21. Still, it’s probably unfair to suggest that Brown was banking on Adele to fill the government’s budget black hole. Maybe he just meant that she was helping to raise morale in a difficult time, that she was a kind of Vera Lynn of the global financial crisis. If so, he was right: the throat surgery had better work, because it’s going to be difficult to get over the new Depression without her.
Luke Coppen is editor of the Catholic Herald.